Mason Bates has written a new piece about war and money, and I thought a lot about it leading up to its world premiere by the National Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night. I wondered about the role of what you might call documentary sound in music; Bates, the Kennedy Center’s composer in residence, recorded the sound of money being manufactured at the U.S. Mint and the sounds of explosions at Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base in California, and incorporated those sounds into his three-movement piece. Do those sounds, I wondered, actually mean something independent of their context, even if you don’t know what they are?
In the event, though, I’m not sure “Art of War” actually merits this kind of deep thought. I’m not even sure what it’s seeking to be. It’s a melodic, driven, expressive piece that makes its documentary aspects abundantly clear (down to incorporating words in the Mint section) in a statement about war that’s hackneyed in its familiarity. We have the newsreel-like first section, driven by the chug-chug of manufacturing money. We have the nostalgic second section, which juxtaposes American and Iraqi folk music, suspended in an otherworldly agar of bending notes and swoops. And we have the martial third section, with its recorded explosions cranked up so loud they vibrate in your bones like the bass in a dance club, and military rhythms that call for the orchestra to stamp along.
It’s certainly an appealing piece, in its way — indeed, I’ve seldom seen an NSO audience quite so excited about a new work. It was just confusing to watch a talented composer hitch his considerable musical talents (that second section, with its combination of muted trombone and flute and double-bass in the wailing of the Iraqi-esque melody against the throatiness of “American” solo violin, was particularly strong) to a statement that was neither original nor arresting. Bates is not alone in his generation, in a country where military conscription is not required, in making wide-eyed tut-tuttings along the lines of “War is Bad!”: “Silent Night” by Kevin Puts and “Soldier Songs” by David T. Little, two other 40-somethings, are other examples. Both of those works have been very popular, and maybe Bates’s will be too. After all, condemning war is something everybody can get behind, especially in today’s climate.
Musically, though, it was a feel-good evening. The orchestra played the piece well and applauded it warmly, and it seemed to be tailored to their strengths. And the Bates work had an eminently expressive counterweight in the Mahler First Symphony, which Gianandrea Noseda conducted with energy, bounce, and, especially in the first movement, a kind of melting beauty and gentleness that I’m coming to see as his best side, an intimate sort of musical hallmark.
I can’t say how the orchestra and Noseda, now in his second year as music director, are actually getting along at this point, but I am more and more a fan of what I see of their chemistry. With the NSO, Noseda seems more relaxed, without the driven ambitious edge that I’ve heard from him with other orchestras. In the Mahler, this led to a fluidity that melded the first movement’s sharp contrasts into a single coherent gesture, and to a lusty rustic earthiness in the second movement, bringing out the chewiness of the cellos with gusto. In the final movement, the whole horn section stood up in a golden wall, their tone audibly led by the golden sound of principal Abel Pereira, before the whole thing ebbed away into silence. There was immediacy and power to the playing without an excess of self-consciousness. It made for a fine Mahler, and offered a good show for the Bates — if only there had been more there for the orchestra to show off.
The program repeats Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.